Ithaca, N.Y. — He bounded toward the blown-up photograph in the lobby of Cornell’s Friedman Wrestling Center and put his face close to the glossy poster surface.
“It’s a picture of the first match in this building,” he said, inspecting the crowd and smiling. Suddenly his finger landed on a blond-haired child near the front. “You can see me sitting in second row. I was nine or ten.”
Years later, in the same facility, he is training for the Olympics.
National Record Breaker
Kyle Dake made a name for himself as a Cornell University wrestler, becoming the first wrestler to ever win National Championships four times in a row in four different weight classes. As a junior and senior, he went undefeated with records of 35-0 and 37-0 respectively. He won the Hodge Trophy in 2013.
Now, he has set his sights on gold medals at both the 2015 World Championships and the 2016 Olympic games. And he’s training in Ithaca.
“I feel at home,” he said. An Ithaca-native, Dake grew up in Lansing.
“I played sports growing up,” he said. “Every single day of the week I was doing something: soccer, basketball, baseball, football, wrestling, gymnastics, whatever.”
In high school, Dake said he decided to focus on wrestling, a sport he grew up on.
“My dad was my coach in high school, middle school and elementary school. In middle school, my grandpa was actually my coach as well,” Dake said.
Cornell wrestling head coach Rob Koll said he’s known Kyle “since he was knee high to a grasshopper” and recalled that Kyle’s father Doug, a former Cornell wrestling coach, left practice one day because his wife Jodi was giving birth to Kyle.
“Kyle was born, bred and raised to be a Cornell wrestler from a very early age and he just didn’t know it,” Koll said.
After graduating from Lansing High School in 2009 and then from Cornell in 2013, Dake began working as an assistant coach at Cornell. Now, though, he is transitioning to a full training schedule.
“A coach has to be very selfless in helping his athletes,” Dake said. “But I’m still an athlete, so I have to be selfish in terms of training and where I put my time.” He decided to stay at Cornell University, a regional training center for the Olympics.
“At all the powerhouse colleges, there is a regional training center. We’re the New York regional training center,” Dake said. Three other male athletes are training at Cornell with Dake, working towards the World Championships and the Olympics.
“It’s always good to have a little bit of a team,” Dake said. “They hold you accountable. You’re not just on your own, thinking you know what you’re doing. You have someone to push you.”
Injury sets training back
A foot injury kept Dake — previously ranked No. 2 on the USA team — from competing in this year’s World Championship, held in early September in Uzbekistan.
“It was one of the toughest times I’ve had wrestling because I’d never been injured before,” he said.
Dake tore his Lisfranc ligament in March while wrestling Cornell athlete Billy George during training.
Before his foot injury, Dake broke his hand wrestling in Azerbaijan in November. At the tournament, Dake went on to beat three-time World champion Denis Tsargush, a Russian wrestler with a broken hand.
“Broken bones are easy,” Dake said. “They’re only six weeks and then you’re back.” Gesturing to his foot, he added, “But this is six months. It is really tough to handle.”
After his foot injury Dake had surgery in April and again four months later to remove the screws and plates. During the spring and summer he lifted weights to work his upper body but wasn’t able to run until mid-September.
“So I’m finally getting back into things,” Dake said. “I’m trying to figure out where I am, in terms of wrestling condition, and where I need to be in order to compete again.”
“It’s been tough to gauge,” he said. “I know right now I’m not in good enough shape to go overseas and win a tournament, because I’ll just get too tired. So I have to run, wrestle, lift, bike, swim, to get my cardiovascular up.”
His goal is to be ready to begin competing again in January, traveling around the world for tournaments. In May, Dake will compete in the World Championships trials again.
Goal-setting propels success
Dake has made it a habit of setting simply put, yet monumental, goals for his wrestling career.
“As a freshmen [at Cornell], as soon as I moved in, my mom gave me a notebook and, as words of encouragement, told me to write my goals down so I wouldn’t forget: What was my purpose being here?” Dake said. “My purpose was being a four time national champ, an Olympic champ, and to get a Cornell degree.”
He wrote down the phrase “2010, 141 pounds, D1 NCAA National Champion” once in the morning and once at night, every single day his freshman year, “so I would know what my day was about,” he said. “If I write my goal down, that’s what I’m working for that day.”
During his sophomore year Dake changed the year and weight in the phrase, writing it twice in the morning and twice at night. His junior year, three times. His senior year, four.
“For some reason I felt like I needed to be more focused. I needed to constantly remind myself what I was going to do,” Dake said.
“Everything he does, there is a plan,” Koll said. “People who have that kind of structure in their life tend to be extremely successful.” Koll said he was disciplined when it came to wrestling, academics, health and college life.
“He’s obviously very family oriented,” Koll said. “He’s dated the same girl since eleventh grade. He listens to what his mother says – his mother told him to write down his goals everyday – and it shows. He is innately positive.”
Dake said writing his goals more and more times each year was yet another way to improve.
“A lot of people try to compare themselves with someone else and that’s not the way to do it,” Dake said, “You’ve got to compare yourself to who you were yesterday, or who you were last year. I couldn’t just write it two times, because that was good enough for last year but not good enough for this year.”
After he graduated, however, Dake said he stopped the practice. “I needed a change,” he said.
He won national championships in March, competed in World trials in May and competed in World Championships in September 2013, where he lost.
“I wasn’t focused enough to win that year,” Dake said. “I didn’t have the experience I needed.”
He started to write his goals again, only to stop when he injured his foot months later.
“I just stopped. Stopped doing it. Focused on other things,” he said, “Hopefully, well I think it will, definitely, come back to where I’m writing my goals down every day.”
Now that the 2014 World Championships have ended, he said, he has one year with the goal “2015, World Champion,” he said. “But I think I’m going to start over at one [time a day] again, instead of going to five.”